Should you give a bear a latke? If you’re asking the very young and very eager audiences of Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company’s holiday production “The Chanukah Guest,” the answer would be a resounding yes.
Written by Jenna Zark, based on Eric A. Kimmel’s award-winning children’s book, “The Chanukah Guest” presents a cleverly imagined encounter between a grandmother and a hungry bear. The MJTC commissioned the piece and originally staged it in 2014 and 2015. Craig Johnson directs this time around and the irrepressible Kim Kivens takes on the role of cheerful Russian grandmother Bubba Brayna.
Deep in the woods surrounding a 19th-century Russian shtetl, Bubba Brayna prepares her famous latkes. It’s the first night of Chanukah and she’s expecting the arrival of her family and Rabbi Yossi. As she potters around her tiny cottage, a whimsical delight designed by Kirby Moore, it becomes clear that she’s half deaf and nearly blind.
Worried that Rabbi Yossi will get lost in the woods on the way to her cottage, Bubba Brayna sends her grandson (Josh Bagley) off to guide him. Meanwhile, much to the delight of the audience, a sleepy bear (Bradley Hildebrandt) emerges from his nearby den and sets off in search of something to eat. When he stumbles into the cottage, Bubba Brayna assumes he’s the rabbi and welcomes him in for latkes.
What follows are a series of sweetly nonsensical sight gags and ludicrous moments of mistaken identity as the bear and the grandmother make and devour latkes, light the first menorah candle, and sing and dance in honor of Chanukah. Layered throughout the work are lessons about the origins of the holiday, its traditions, and its message of endurance, faith and fortitude.
Kivens’ grandmother is an energetic and sassy presence, while Hildebrandt delivers plenty of laughs in his dual roles as the lumbering bear and upright rabbi. They’re ably complemented by Bagley’s earnest performance as the grandson.
Throughout the show the three actors engage their young spectators directly, even bringing some on stage to join in the dancing. As an extra offering before the show starts, they lead the audience in warmups, explain stage terminology and dramatic effects, and teach the chorus of the “Dreidel Song.” It’s a clever addition that helps get a very young audience comfortable with the conventions of theater.
Indeed, it’s that young audience itself, roaring with laughter at the bear’s first appearance, shouting warnings to Bubba Brayna, and absorbing the simple tale with wonderment, that provides much of the fun in this nicely staged and amusing production.
Lisa Brock is a Twin Cities theater critic.